Noma is moving from Copenhagen to Sydney for a 10-week run in January 2016. Gourmet Traveller's Pat Nourse spoke to chef and co-owner René Redzepi about the restaurant's adventures Down Under.
Gourmet Traveller: I understand you're opening a restaurant in Sydney for a time.
René Redzepi: Yes. We're going to open a pop-up restaurant from the end of January and we'll be open 10 weeks. We've been planning this since the beginning of November last year, so we've actually been planning it since before we'd had the full Japan experience. We were already fuelled by what we were experiencing getting ready for Japan, so we knew we would want to do it again, and we made a quick decision to say "where do we want to go on earth?" It was actually pretty easy because we didn't want to be back in Asia, and we wanted to be somewhere where it was summer. The initial idea was to replace the Scandinavian winter beet with a coconut. That was our dream scenario. And then we also looked for a place where a lot of the staff would love to be. We wanted to make sure we could have the staff be happy, and it also needed to be somewhere we could bring our children, where they could go to school. It's always one of the biggest hurdles when we want to do something; now we're starting to grow up as a team, everybody's getting married and having kids.
Where are you right now?
Tasmania. We've just been diving for seaweed, which was an amazing experience. We had some urchins that were really, really good - hopefully we'll be able to get them for Sydney. We've just been again to Franklin, and now we're driving to the Bay of Fires, then we're going to Flinders Island to see the wallaby production there. Tasmania is stunning. You could definitely get a lot of stuff here - more or less everything. People say it's winter here right now, but it's more like Scandinavian spring. There's still flowers on the farms; it's pretty amazing actually. The tough weather here is more like the wind, and you can definitely taste that in the ingredients - that stress that makes things taste amazing.
Dumb question: completely Australian ingredients, all-new menu?
All-new menu, yes, but maybe not completely Australian ingredients. We're getting the understanding that you're part of Asia here, so we might have, let's say, dried kelp from Japan, or we might bring one of our fermented rye breads to smother a nice Australian oyster in. But of course we're here travelling around Australia to find things to cook with that we don't see at home, for sure. We're here to learn and have a life experience. And wake up every day and wear flip-flops to work.
What are some of the flavours that have caught your attention on the road so far?
One that springs immediately to mind is bush honey. It's the best honey I've ever tried. We thought, "oh, Scandinavia and all the wilderness, the honey is amazing" - which it is - but then we had the bush honey. It's like a creamy perfect vinaigrette in itself, but with a sweetness and a honey feel to it. I was just blown away.
We were also blown away by the Alexander palm. I loved that. I really like, also, the green ant - I think it's fun. And the abalone here - we're very inspired by the native stuff in the oceans, and we've found some quality that's unbelievable. Today's just-picked sea urchin in Tasmania had crazy quality.
I also tasted a sprouted bunya nut. That was something Jock [Zonfrillo, owner-chef of Adelaide two-star Orana] showed us. That was amazing. And Jock has been so helpful. We've already spent three days with him, and copious amounts of email. Ben Shewry introduced us to his mussel farmer, and showed us around. The dedication and ethics of these people - they have so many wonderful stories.
And in Sydney?
We've visited farms, we've taken a boat ride up the Hawkesbury and tasted the shrimp, saw the eel, talked to fishermen. We met with a forager, a young forager called Elijah [Holland], who's the chef at a place called the Powder Keg. He's a real forager. He showed up to a meeting with 40 varieties of stuff from the northern beaches of Sydney.
We're not done yet, of course - we're going to keep travelling around to Queensland after Flinders Island, and then we're going to come back in October, and we're going to go to the west and to the Northern Territory. We've seen great stuff everywhere.
So it's safe to say that the chefs in Australia have been welcoming you?
Oh, yeah. It's been amazing. We've been welcomed so much. As soon as word started to get out I got emails from everybody. Peter Gilmore, Neil Perry - everybody. They're all saying, "Hey, what can we do to help?"
Where is all this stuff leading you in terms of what you'll be putting on the plate?
Right now, where we're at in our menu-planning, we're definitely inspired by the landscape of the shoreline and also the ocean. We've found incredible ingredients where the water meets the land. Also when you look at the Australian connection to the shoreline, there's something going on there. What we're trying to do now is imagine that we're skimming around the shoreline of Australia - from a few kilometres out to sea to the agriculture just past the shoreline. What ingredients does that give us? We'll see if that works.
We're also inspired heavily by the use of fire, and I'm basing that on some of my previous experiences in Australia. I've been to two communities, one in the Flinders Ranges and one in Margaret River, and when you go there, within two or three minutes somebody's cranking up a fire and you end up sitting around it talking. Maybe someone's roasting a kangaroo leg over it. And then on the other hand, when you're in urban Australia and you visit people, you're always going to be invited over for a barbecue, so the conviviality of the fire seems to me to be something very Australian, both in the bush and the city. We'd like to play with that as best we can, and see if we can use that in a very refined way.
What about drinks? All Australian?
Yes. Mads [Kleppe], our head sommelier, was in Victoria and South Australia and he was really, really happy. He's a fairly - well, I don't want to say arrogant, but he's a bit of a snobbish European in terms of wine. There's a lot of sommeliers who think that only European wine is good, and not only just Europe, but specifically thinking that Burgundy and the Loire Valley know how to do wine. Anyway, he went into some of the hills and cooler-climate areas and was really happy. He said he even found stuff he wanted to bring back to Copenhagen and put on the wine list. So that'd be something. We're not going to come here and serve the wines we serve every day at home - that wouldn't do anything for us. It's not just the kitchen exploring; it's the whole waiter-team delving into something new. You make wine, you distil and brew, so we're going to seek out what we like the best and work with it.
How are we going to book?
We don't know yet. No clue. Probably something like what we do in Copenhagen where we open it online and it's for whoever clicks first.
Oh, man, I think that could be a hassle to control, to tell the truth.
Lunch and dinner?
Five days a week, closed Sunday and Monday.
What's it going to cost?
That we don't know yet. Four or five hundred.
Heston Blumenthal copped a bit of flak here when people noticed The Fat Duck in Melbourne cost more than the restaurant at Bray. Is that a concern for you?
It's going to be crazy. Right now we're looking at accommodation for the whole staff and that's looking like between $500,000 and $800,000. We have to put 11 kids in an international school for three months. And we can only put that expense one place, and that's on the menu.
And this is a three-way deal between Noma, Tourism Australia and LendLease?
Tourism Australia has been very helpful setting up connections, with research trips and helping us with visas and so on, which is really crucial. LendLease is giving us the space and helping us fit it. It's really complex because we have to rent a full kitchen, and we have to put in furniture that'll all have to go away after we're done so the real tenants can move in. We can't do a lot to the space; it'll have to be very adaptable - we're moving in before people are really moving in.
We were looking all over Australia - at first I was saying, "Let's do it on Smiths Beach," at Margaret River. "We'll wake up every day, we'll just wash ourselves in the ocean and surf before breakfast," and all these things, and then you start planning for it and you realise that it's impossible when you want to bring 100 people to Australia. Schools and all these things - just forget about it, basically. We were searching for those quintessential Australian spaces, like a surf club or even some of the islands in Sydney Harbour that we looked at, but all of it was going to just be so damned expensive, we had to change up. How many kitchens can fit 35? When we opened in Japan, our people worked 18 to 20 hours for 10 days straight, more or less, so we can't be in a place where our people will need to commute too far. There was a moment when we thought it wasn't going to happen just because we couldn't find a space; Sydney is really booming. And then Tourism Australia connected us with LendLease, and we looked at two or three of their locations and we decided on the place right there on the edge of the water that reminded me very much of Copenhagen. It was a feeling of "Wow, this is Noma in the south," so to speak.
"Noma Syd" someone called it. "Syd" actually means south in Danish, which is fun. But it's about Australia, not just about Sydney - about learning from Australia as a country. It's a lot of work. This is our fourth visit here this year as a team already, and my second, and our sommeliers have been over, meeting all these people who are crazy in the best possible way.
Where are you hoping to live while you're here?
It's very much about budgets to tell the truth. I would like to stay in around Edition Roasters; that's my favourite coffee right now in Sydney. Outstanding.
I really like that neighbourhood. But even though we have Tourism Australia and LendLease helping us, we're pretty much on our own in terms of fixing everything financially. It's really tight. Does anyone have a rich aunt who wants to loan us a building?
What did you learn from the Japan adventure?
That you have to do this for life experiences. That has to be your ultimate goal: to enrich your life.
What are you doing with Noma Copenhagen while you're in Sydney?
Right now the plan is just to close it, like we did with Japan.
There's a contingent of Australian chefs saying they'd be happy to run it reciprocally for you as a pop-up.
I don't think people really understand what it's like to be in Scandinavia in winter. Seriously, it sounds great - "let's go to Copenhagen in the middle of January" - but I don't think people understand the level of research you need to do to get a feel for a place. Also if you have to work with a lot of our pantry - it's very un-Australian to work with a lot of ferments and pickles and the stuff that we do - it's complex and it takes a while to familiarise yourself with it. We also don't have a minute spare to organise these things.
Having said that, of course it would be amazing if we could have someone fill the place and pay the rent while we're here. We might have a former sous-chef who's looking to open a place, who has talked about maybe doing a pop-up there and cooking his food while we're gone, but I don't know how we'd organise it.
Some of the initial conversations about Noma Australia were about it being a more casual experience than Tokyo. But this sounds more like the full Noma experience.
I gave that a lot of thinking. The quintessential thing you experience in Australia is someone at some point will invite you to a barbecue. And the café culture is so strong here - just popping in for a coffee, somebody will be around to toast a piece of bread for you or fix you up with a salad. It's unique, the café culture of Sydney and Melbourne. So in a way it did feel a bit, like, "is it the right thing for us, to come here with a fine-dining concept?" to this very laidback sort of space. But then, on the other hand, we all agreed that we might be able to set up a place where we feed 250 a night, doing three courses for more reasonable money. But it would still cost some money. It wouldn't be cheap, and it would still be more than what you'd be charging at some other nice restaurant in Sydney. And we can't escape the fact that people would come there expecting that Noma thing, and maybe be disappointed. Probably we'd open something cool, and maybe one per cent of people would think, "Great, this is really different and interesting," but the majority of people coming want to see what we can really do with the Australian foods here and taste how we think of it in terms our menu setting.
Apart from rocking the restaurant, what are you hoping to do in your 10 weeks in Australia?
I hope that my kids will learn some Australian slang, and speak English better. I hope that we'll meet many more friends from Australia, and also connect with many cooks here. I really like working with Aussies. And I hope to learn something new.
I really hope that by going into a completely new landscape we will be able to see our own world in a different way and become better at what we do at home through the experiences that we have in Australia. That would be an amazing thing.
What's your advice to the people who'll take over the space after you leave?
I'd just like to say sorry in advance. I hope we don't trash the place - I'll try to leave it in mint condition.